On this day in 1734, Samuel Jones, namesake of Great Jones Street in NoHo, was born in Nassau County.
At only two blocks long, Great Jones Street isn’t actually all that ‘great’ – at least not in size. But surprisingly for a street so short, it has figured prominently in New York City history and culture. Off the Grid has already covered who Samuel Jones was and why his street was so named, so for this birthday post I’ll focus on the cultural imprint of Jones’ two blocks.
Samuel Jones donated the street’s land to the city in 1789, and it quickly become a fashionable part of town. Many prestigious upper-class homes were built on the street, and Great Jones, along with neighboring Bond and Bleecker Streets, formed a small genteel neighborhood at what was then the very northern limits of New York. Early residents included Philip Hone, aristocrat, Mayor of New York City, and famed diarist. He built a house at 1 Great Jones that he refers to in his diary as “a most delightful and comfortable residence.” He would live there, on the corner of Great Jones and Broadway, until his death in 1851.
New York moves fast, though, and by the mid-to-late 1800’s the aristocrats had begun to move uptown. More working-class businesses and homes moved in and the area took on a more commercial personality. Many of the neighborhood’s loft-style buildings were built at this time – merchants and developers commissioned retail buildings that featured handsome storefronts to sell or display their wares, paired with loft space above for their business operations.
Great Jones Street was notable for more than just the paradoxical disconnect between the grand aspirations of its name and its relatively diminutive nature; as it fell from fashion, Great Jones seemed to tumble into increasing notoriety and disrepute. A quick search through the New York Times archives returns a flurry of such activity on 19th-century Great Jones. In 1855, “a mother” complains to the city that in 59 Great Jones is one of several “notorious houses of imposition in the character of “fortune telling.”” Two doors down, at 55 Great Jones, two steers weighing 6,195 pounds were on display in 1863 to the delight of “lovers of splendid prize cattle” (aren’t we all?). In 1861, the 69th Regiment of New York formed on Great Jones and marched, with fanfare, to a steamer in the Hudson that took them off to battle in the Civil War. The Times reports that Great Jones became thronged with onlookers, eager to catch what may be their last glance at the young soldiers. And Great Jones factors into several major criminal cases, including the murder of Democratic politician Mike Walsh, the Burdell’s Bond Street murder trial, and the divorce trial of prominent (but erratic) actor Edwin Forrest. Great Jones is mentioned in testimony for each case which, at the time of their proceedings, captivated the New York.
As time went on, Great Jones dove further into that dark territory. Like many other areas of the city, the mid-20th century was not kind to Great Jones Street and the surrounding neighborhood. A seedier element replaced the aristocrats and prize cattle. Artists and other low-income residents moved into the commercial loft buildings, and the area became known as gritty, often dangerous, territory. It’s rumored that the term “jonesing” — meaning an addict’s craving for their drugs — comes from heroin and other drug users who congregated on Great Jones (or perhaps Great Jones Alley, which extends from the street itself). And Don Delillo immortalized Great Jones Street in his 1973 novel of the same name. I find it remarkable that with all the miles and miles of legendary streets in New York, a tiny two-block stretch was the subject of its own novel written by one of the most acclaimed authors of our time. Perhaps against all odds, Great Jones Street commands respect, worthy of its name.
And earlier this month, respect is exactly what Great Jones got. One of the most well-known pieces of Great Jones’ history is artist Jean-Michel Basquiat home and studio in a former stable at 57 Great Jones, owned at the time by his friend and mentor Andy Warhol. Basquiat actually died in the building at the very young age of 27. GVSHP teamed up with Two Boots to commemorate this remarkable history with a plaque, celebrating the significance of Basquiat’s life and work. A ceremony in front of the building drew hundreds, and several special guests spoke to Basquiat’s spirit and enduring legacy. (Check out our photos and video from the Basquiat presentation, and learn more about the other downtown sites we’ve marked with plaques.) The plaque at 57 Great Jones is an important marker for a street with such an eclectic and odd history. Now, sandwiched between the building once in the “Mayor’s Black Book,” and the site of prize cattle displays, the history of a brilliant 20th-century innovator and artist will be forever celebrated.